“Cloaks and Daggers and Thief Takers”
A Concise History of Private Detection
Richard Lindberg Copyright © 2002
Before there were big city police departments, the task of safeguarding lives and property from marauding bands of criminals, rogues, and confidence men was left to the private thief takers and night watchmen.
Private enterprise and policing were synonymous in the early days of the Republic. The struggle for independence in the American colonies instilled a deeply rooted fear of standing militias, military occupation, and a suspension of civil liberties. Moreover, a uniformed police force controlled and directed by the central government was thought to be the first step toward gradual curtailment of the congressional guarantees ensured under the Constitution.
Because crime never takes a holiday, the civil authorities, besieged by lawlessness, and episodes of riotous disorder in the fledgling Republic, recognized the necessity to empower a civilian adjunct of "select men" and "constables" to maintain the peace. Nightly patrols commenced through the residential and commercial quarters of the towns and villages.
The system of law enforcement that prevailed in the early National period of American history borrowed the standards of Eighteenth Century England. That is to say, the standards were very minimal.
Ripping Coves, Sneaking Budges, and Jonathan Wild
In England, as in other Western European nations at that time, the central government relied on low-level civil servants answering to Justices of the Peace to enforce statutes and save the populace from the denizens of the criminal underworld, who answered to such outlandish names as "Ripping Coves" (burglars who gained access to a dwelling through the roof tiles), "Sneaking Budges" (sneak thieves) and "Hook Pole Lays" (highwaymen who used a long cane-pole to pull wealthy travelers down from their horses).
The Justices of the Peace in turn, often found it expedient to deputize tradesmen, merchants and artisans to patrol their districts as night watchmen, beadles, and constables. For the miserable sum of six pence a night, the watchmen guarded a narrowly-defined parcel of city land, but he was limited in his powers to arrest wrongdoers, and was often placed in harm's way by gangs of malefactors engaged in drunken brawls outside the public houses.
By the mid-eighteenth century, it was commonplace for the shopkeepers and merchants to hire "deputies" to perform their constabulary duties. And while the High Constable may have frowned upon this practice, the system was tolerated so long as the deputized watchman performed his duties in a capable manner. Very often the private police men would be re-appointed through successive generations of trade's people, thus a reliable watchman carried on with his employment until he was too feeble, or sickly to continue.
These informal arrangements with private entrepreneurs were both a blessing and a curse to 18th Century Londoners. An honest and fair-minded practitioner provided his clients with levels of personal service one could not reasonably expect from the Metropolitan Police force coming much later. On the other hand, many of the self-styled "thief takers" and protectors of the innocent like Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), maintained deep and pervasive ties to the criminal underworld, or were in fact, thieves of the very worst sort.
For nearly a decade Wild lived a charmed double life, championing the cause of law and order, as London's most successful and adroit thief taker. Emerging from debtor's prison in the early 1700s, Jonathan Wild was introduced to Charles Hitchin, a corrupt city marshal who suggested they form a "partnership." The scheme was simple. Stolen merchandise seized by Hitchen and Wild in their role as "thief takers" would be divided up and fenced in the open-air markets.
The arrangement lasted two years until Jonathan Wild publicly announced his intention to splinter the partnership and henceforth represent the entire city of London as "Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland." He divided the city into districts, and appointed a posse of thief takers to canvass the businessmen while he dealt directly with the criminal gangs who were made to understand that the success of their thieving escapades depended on their willingness to pay tribute directly to Wild.
Criminals with an independent streak who refused to fall in line ended up behind bars in Newgate or dangling from a gibbet. Wild traded on his political connections with the judges at the Old Bailey and grew wealthy and powerful in a very short time. In fact, Wild opened an office at the Old Bailey where his customers would come to retrieve their stolen belongings. With the exception of Sir William Thompson, recorder of London who was suspicious of his schemes, most people believed in Jonathan Wild and his proven abilities to bring miscreants to justice.
Pressing his political advantages to the limit, Wild petitioned the Lord Mayor London to grant him the power to arrest anyone at will
anytime. He proudly pointed to his record of sending 60 felons to the gallows. The act was passed and Wild was granted his unlimited powers until his adversary, Sir William Thompson, caught him in possession of stolen loot, a capitol offense.
Jonathan Wild, the most famous thief-taker in all London was hanged at Tyburn on May 24, 1725 before a jeering throng estimated to be in excess of 5,000.
Nevertheless, the practice of thief taking, despite all of its glaring imperfections, continued well into the mid-Eighteenth Century. In 1749, Sir Henry Fielding, the renowned novelist and playwright who wrote an account of Wild's sordid escapades, organized eighty unpaid Parish constables into an efficiently run thief-taking agency known as the "Bow Street Runners."
While not completely free of larceny and graft, Fielding's "Runners" laid the groundwork for the formation of the world's first modern public policing agency, the London Metropolitan Police, organized by the British Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel in September 1829. His organizational genius separated the uniformed patrols from the judiciary, thus eliminating a layer of accountability that fostered corruptive arrangements and collusion between the private thief takers, the underworld, and the magistrates at the Old Bailey.
The movement toward professional policing had taken root on the continent years earlier. Undoubtedly, Peel had been carefully studying and assessing the methods of France's greatest detective, Francois Eugene Vidocq (1775-1857), when he formulated plans for the London Metropolitan Police force.
Responding to a growing public crisis, the French emperor Napoleon had organized a national security force in 1809, the police de surete (the Surete, or "security police"), assigning Vidocq, a former soldier, adventurer, and petty criminal to head its day to day operations.
Born in Arras, France, where he co-mingled among the criminal classes, Vidocq rose to a position of prominence in the government and among the denizens of the fashionable literary salons of Paris. The French novelist Honore de Balzac was inspired to invent the villainous Vautrin in Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), after befriending the famous French detective and studying his ways.
After nearly two decades of service to the government, Vidocq left the agency in 1827 to start a newspaper and cardboard mill where is it said; he put many former convicts arrested in the streets of Paris to work. Vidocq had relied almost exclusively on informants and hardened criminals during his earlier investigations, reasoning that who better than a criminal could understand the criminal mind?
The newspaper venture failed however. In ill health, Vidocq returned to the Surete for a short duration, but was dismissed in 1832 for a theft he had allegedly masterminded. Thereafter, he created his own private detective agency, which would become a prototype for future generations of entrepreneurial criminal investigators (independent of the police) around the world.
The British and French models were closely studied in the U.S., where the Vidocq-inspired private detection agencies had provided emerging urban areas with the only proven and reliable methods of crime prevention and deterrence in the face of rampant corruption and ineptitude on the part of the constabulary.
The Early Days of Private Policing in America
By the early 1840s, private policing agencies, composed mostly of retired men drawn from the ranks the municipal constabularies gravitated into small, for-profit agencies often called the "Independent Police." Three such agencies made their first appearance in St. Louis (1846); Baltimore a year later, and Philadelphia in 1848.
A rising tide of property crime led to a demand for more private policemen and thief takers to recover lost or stolen items, because in many locales, the City Constables could not be trusted or counted on. The New York Times reported in July 1857, that three Manhattan constables impounded $900 from a local dry goods merchant and tailor who had been ordered to pay $79.87 restitution in a civil judgment rendered against him by the courts. Before the man returned to his business establishment that very afternoon, the Constables carted off nearly his entire inventory to satisfy payment of the meager fine.
When he demanded prompt return of his merchandise, the Constables said they could oblige him, but only with the recovery of a small portion of the goods. There had been a theft, and none of the loot could be recovered they were sorry to report. The astonished dry goods merchant was presented with a bill for $19.87 upon receipt of his depleted stock, demanding payment for the following surcharges:
Thinking it over $4.00
The local Magistrate a party to the swindle, refused to intervene, saying that most "sensible" business people could "stand the cheat" rather than risk further embarrassment to their good name by having to undergo the inconvenience of attending a court "show up." Under the existing system, a Constable in New York in the mid-1850s, earned $10,000 to $15,000 annually by supplementing his city wage through unscrupulous means. It was an exorbitant salary in an era when working men earned only pennies a day. Such were the chaotic state of affairs in American law enforcement leading up to the Civil War.
In Chicago, the private detection agencies founded by G.T. Moore, Allan Pinkerton and Cyrus Bradley (the city's first Chief of Police after the nighttime patrols merged with the day constabulary in 1855) specialized in city work, and offered residents value-added service for their money. That is, the added element of crime detection lacking in the unsophisticated roughnecks recruited into the city police department by the politicians. There were no trained detectives employed by the big city police departments at this time, only the appointed guardians of the peace who were often accused of being selective in who they guarded and at what times of day.
It was not surprising that the private agencies were strongly rebuked by the Mayor and his cabinet because they had trespassed on a sacrosanct area of city administrationthe police department. Responding to the politically motivated criticisms, G.T. Moore of the Merchant's Police agency defended the capabilities of his firm in an 1858 letter to the Chicago Tribune.
"The large number of bankers and merchants whose premises we have been watching for, with very general satisfaction for the last seven months, proves the soundness of my plan, for though there have been upwards of twenty burglaries within a block of my district during that time, there has been but two among my customers and those the attending circumstances was such that the blame was not attached to my men. I command this matter to the businessmen, generally for fifty cents per week is but a small sum to have a store watched as I have them."
While some of the early private detectives were men of unsavory character who manufactured evidence of marital indiscretion to present to their suspicious clients, and others bullied shop keepers and committed property crimes for the avowed purpose of creating new business opportunities, agencies like the Merchant's Police were generally reliable and were far more adept at recovering stolen merchandise than the city police.
Through their early successes, the private agencies pioneered the concept of "preventative policing," an approach to law enforcement that slowly began to take root during the Civil War period when frustrated city officials realized that the populace expected, end even demanded much more from the city police than lazy incompetents who, left to their own devices, refused to wear uniforms and "hid the star," lest they be recognized and called upon to break up a civil disturbance.
Thus, the number of patrolmen was substantially increased in the large cities where criminal gangs were becoming rampant and violent crime spiraled continually upward. The names of the malefactors were catalogued in police stations, and duly appointed detectives, presumably trained in investigation and apprehension now turned their attention to studying patterns of criminal behavior and scientific detection methods.
The Chicago Tribune boasted on January 1, 1866, that "The Detective Force of Chicago will compare favorably with that of any city in the world in point of efficiency, but not in numbers. No mystery is too intricate to be unraveled, and no crime too dark to be brought to light by their efforts. In shrewdness, perseverance, and efficiency the force is equaled by few and surpassed by none."
The mildly amusing exaggeration served to promote the aims of the city's Republican administration well, for the Tribune was also a partisan Republican journal.
In truth however, the role of police departments was becoming increasingly sophisticated and the private detective agencies that upheld the peace in the days of the constabulary and night watch, concerned themselves with protecting the interests of commercial railroads and private business from a tide of labor unrest sweeping the nation. The Civil War occasioned the rise of the rise of the nation's first large-scale detective agency.
The Eye That Never Sleeps
With little more than the clothes on his back and clutching a Bible in his hand, Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884), escaped from the political and economic repression of his homeland in 1842, to start over in the United States.
In his native Scotland, Pinkerton was a spokesman for the Chartist movement, and as such, he advocated in the strongest of terms, for universal suffrage, enfranchisement of the lower classes and the opportunity to speak plainly about these matters without fear of censure. Chartist sympathizers fanned out across the Greater Midwest and in Boston and New York. Pinkerton established residence in Dundee, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago.
An ardent abolitionist, a throw back to his Chartist ideals, Allan Pinkerton assisted many escaped slaves in their flight to freedom in Canada, via the Northern Illinois connection of the underground railroad.
As a sworn deputy sheriff in rural Kane County during the 1840s, Pinkerton had an occasion to track down and arrest a gang of rural counterfeiters preying on the local residents. So adept was he, that the U.S. Government retained his services in 1851 to investigate a local case in Illinois. Afterward, he recovered two young women who were abducted in Michigan and transported west for immoral purposes.
As his reputation and status within law enforcement circles continued to grow, the Pinkerton name was associated with proven and reliable methods of detection. The famous detective agency bearing the family name and the universally recognizable crest, "The Eye That Never Sleeps" (hence the term "private eye") was founded on February 1, 1855 as the North West Police Agency, after a consortium of worried railroad officials provided $10,000 in seed money to help Pinkerton get the business going.
Vandalism of railroad property was common in those days as new track, water towers, and terminals spliced through previously isolated rural farmland. The Illinois Central was a frequent target of vandals, and the destruction of rolling stock was becoming an alarming occurrence. As an agent for the railroads, Pinkerton protected property and defended the companies against internal theft.
Passenger conductors became immediately suspect as incidences of thievery and fraud escalated. The Pinkertons incurred the deep enmity of the railroad employees, whose movements and actions were observed by undercover agents traveling the rails. Because so many of the passenger tickets were purchased aboard the train, there was ample opportunity for dishonest conductors to pocket the revenue or allow friends and associates to ride for free.
The agency charted an unpopular course by its actions. And even though crimes of fraud and embezzlement (however petty they may have seemed to employees at the time) were being committed at the client company's expense, the name Pinkerton evoked bitter feelings among tradesmen and unionists for decades to come in various industries.
In the coming years, as an expanding network of railroads pushed further and further west, the express cars carrying cash and valuables to remote destinations, became an inviting target for armed and mounted criminal gangs. In isolated areas of the country, where police presence was minimal, railroad executives were often forced to rely on Pinkerton agents to protect the line, and recover stolen securitiesby any means necessary.
By solving the first armed train robbery in American history, Allan Pinkerton and his men demonstrated amazing resourcefulness and uncommon tenacity (a hallmark of the agency in its formative years) by seeing the case through to a satisfactory outcome . The crime occurred outside of rural Seymour, Indiana in the Spring of 1866 when John and Simeon Reno and a confederate named Franklin Sparks boarded an Ohio & Mississippi passenger car with the intention of "boosting" the safe. They succeeded in removing one of the safes belonging to the Adams Express Company, before affecting their plan of escape.
The Reno gang enjoyed strong local support in Seymour. Their family's presence in the community dated back to 1816, and the brothers were admired. Therefore, it was incumbent upon Allan Pinkerton to place key operatives in Seymour to gain intelligence about the movements of the gang members. After ten months of careful surveillance and undercover work, the Pinkertons devised an ingenious plan to kidnap John Reno, and shuttle him into an awaiting train pointing in the direction of a distant eastern penitentiary. The plan workedbut the detective agency refused to rest until Reno's accomplices were brought to justice, a process that would take two more years to complete.
The Pinkertons crisscrossed the back roads of the Midwest and Canada in vigorous pursuit of the Reno gang until they were finally waylaid in Windsor, Ontario and extradited back to the U.S. While awaiting trial in New Albany, Indiana, a vigilante mob broke through the doors of the jail and lynched the surviving members of the Reno gang, one by one.
With unshakeable self-confidence (a confidence many believe bordered on megalomania), Allan Pinkerton introduced modern crime fighting technique into what was essentially a frontier occupation reserved for roughnecks, drunkards, and scoundrels traversing the law. With the support of a newly formed federal agency, the U.S. Department of Justice (organized in 1870), the Pinkertons were the immediate beneficiary of a significant portion of a $50,000 federal stipend earmarked to track down and prosecute federal crimes.
With this important governmental mandate in hand, Pinkerton men were dispatched to the Missouri badlands in 1874 to arrest the Cole Younger gang and Jesse James, but the attempt to bring these desperados to justice ended badly outside Monegaw Springs.
On the night of March 10, Jesse James and a confederate named Clell Miller kidnapped a Pinkerton man from the Chicago office named Joseph W. Witcher. James shot Witcher and left him lying in the road. The bloody skirmishes with the peripatetic outlaw gangs embarrassed the agency, but the intelligence the agents were able to assemble proved valuable to the citizens of Northfield, Minnesota when an attempted bank robbery in that town ended disastrously for the Younger gang.
Pinkerton was never one to shy away from sanctioning violence in order to achieve results, and in time, his agency would be embarrassed by a tide of negative publicity.
The agency pioneered the classification of felons through photographic "mug shots," and cross-indexing of its own files against the records kept by big city police departments. In 1897, the Pinkertons created the first centralized records division, then known as the National Bureau of Criminal Identification, which was turned over to the FBI Identification Bureau in 1924.
Allan Pinkerton was among the first to utilize telephones and coded messages in order to communicate with his field agents. His strategy of infiltrating criminal organizations with teams of loyal and courageous operatives sent in to gather intelligence and build a case, were methods copied by federal and local law enforcement everywhere. But for all of his success in elevating the investigation field to a position of respect, he failed to check the ambitions of his two sons who committed the agency to a doomed course over the next forty years.
In 1869, this crime-fighting innovator suffered a debilitating stroke. Two years later, his home office in Chicago was swept away in a great fire that destroyed nearly the entire city. "I will never be beaten! Never!" snarled an angry Pinkerton following these setbacks. But his two sons, William Pinkerton (1846-1923) and Robert Pinkerton (1848-1907), succeeded in wresting control of the company away from their father during a protracted power struggle that underscored the larger problems the company was facing during these troubling times.
The younger Pinkertons opened offices in fifteen cities, having learned their trade from a skilled team of investigators their father had integrated into the business years earlier. The most famous of all Pinkerton agents were George and Timothy Bangs, Kate Warne (the first female detective in the nation's history), and James McParland who infiltrated the Molly McGuires.
Robert was headquartered in New York, and his brother William in Chicago. Together, they launched the firm on a destructive new course as strikebreakers and company spies, supplying factory security guards and undercover agents to thwart attempts at unionization within the trades. Although Allan had initiated a guard service in 1857 with the formation of the Pinkerton Protection Patrol, he strongly advised his sons against shifting the focus of the company exclusively toward this side of the business.
Against their father's wishes, the Pinkertons veered away from complex criminal investigative work to become the unwitting tool of the "robber barons," arousing great enmity, mistrust, and suspicion among the ranks of the urban industrial working classes.
From the coal fields of Pennsylvania where the "Pinks" (as they were derisively referred to) broke the power of the Molly McGuires, a secret society of miners relying on terror and sabotage to achieve modest concessions from management, to the troubles down at the Carnegie Iron and Steel Company in nearby Homestead in 1892, the agency incurred fierce opposition to its methods.
At Homestead, one of the most bloody and contentious labor disputes in this nation's history, the Pinkerton sons hired an "army" of 300 strikebreakers to engage company workers in battle. Five employees and three agents were killed, sparking Congressional hearings and Capitol Hill testimony concerning the Homestead Massacre from eyewitness, participants, and the embattled Pinkerton brothers.
As a result of these hearings, Congress passed the so-called "Pinkerton Law," prohibiting the federal government from hiring the agency or any of its competitors. A second governmental inquiry probing deeper into Pinkerton's anti-labor practices in 1936, forced the company to rethink its mission. Thereafter, it was decided that the detective agency would neither represent labor or capital in future disputes.
The Growth of the Private Security Industry
At the price of adverse media coverage and mounting public animosity, the Pinkerton agency nevertheless continued to build upon its thriving security business and would remain the largest (and nearly exclusive) single provider of security services in the nation through the middle of the twentieth century.
Pinkerton has steered away from the investigations side of the business in recent years, focusing almost exclusively on its uniformed guard services, security systems integration, and employee screening programs. In 1965, one of the grandsons changed the name of the company to Pinkerton's Inc., believing it was a more accurate reflection of the Agency's modern function; partnering with big business on the security side of the ledger.
A good indicator of the changing fortunes of the company over the years was the March 1999 announcement of Pinkerton's merger with a foreign company, the Stockholm-based Securitas AB, Europe's largest provider of security services.
The rapid growth of the security profession and the formation of rival detection agencies to compete with the Pinkerton monopoly spoke to the unease American corporations and institutions were feeling as the nineteenth century rolled over into the twentieth. A series of political assassinations, acts of sabotage, bombing outrages, the rising militancy of fledgling labor unions sparking riots and demonstrations led to a sharp rise in companies and individuals providing security services.
Washington Perry Brink organized a truck and package delivery service in Chicago in 1859. He expanded the business in 1891 with the introduction of an armored car and courier service to transport payroll through dangerous crime-ridden areas of the city. By 1900 he owned a fleet of 75 wagons. Before the twentieth century passed into history the Brink's Armored Car Company was grossing in excess of $50-million dollars in revenue each year.
Mooney & Boland was another Chicago-based firm that provided security and investigative services, but on a much smaller scale. For all practical purposes the Pinkerton agency comprised America's front line of defense against inter-state crime, and was the only national policing agency of its kind until 1909.
The Rise of the Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Burns International Detective Agency
In its earliest years, the Justice Department was a feeble creation of a tottering Washington bureaucracy mired in a decrepit spoils system that awarded sensitive jobs to unqualified political hacks. Lacking an effective enforcement arm of its own, actual investigative work was left to federal bank examiners, the U.S. Marshals service, private agencies, and Customs Bureau agents.
The comments of Charles J. Bonaparte, the American-born grandnephew of the French emperor Napoleon I, and President Theodore Roosevelt's attorney general from 1906-1908 underscored the weakness of the Justice Department in this flawed system.
In 1907, Bonaparte made the first of several direct appeals to Congress to appropriate funds to create a national investigative agency. For its own self-serving reasons, not the least of which were a spate of recent corruption indictments stemming from a Secret Service probe into the affairs of several Congressmen, the legislative body in Washington balked.
Bonaparte sidestepped Congress and organized a small Justice Department investigative staff under the direction of Chief Examiner Stanley W. Finch on July 26, 1906. The fledgling twenty-three-man agency was officially sanctioned by George W. Wickersham, U.S. Attorney General under President William Howard Taft in 1909, and was formally named the Bureau of Investigation later that same year.
The newly formed crime fighting agency mostly concerned itself with enforcement of the recently enacted "Mann Act," passed into law by Congress in 1910 to halt the inter-state trafficking of women for immoral purposes. Organized crime gangs tightly controlled a nationwide network of inner city segregated vice areas that were permitted to operate with the approval of corrupt municipal governments. To replenish these illicit dens of vice, criminal panders would often travel to rural farm areas, or the coastal seaports to solicit immigrant women as they stepped off the boat or train to begin a new life in the U.S. The Bureau of Investigation was particularly effective in curbing these kinds of activities, but it did not achieve national prominence until the height of America's first "red scare" in the second decade of the twentieth-century.
During and after World War I the Bureau concerned itself with enforcement of the various emergency acts passed by Congress to check the seditious actions of spies and saboteurs. William J. Burns (1861-1932), head of the U.S. Secret Service until 1909 when he founded a private detective agency to compete with his avowed enemies, the Pinkertons, was particularly adept in this line of work.
Described in various quarters as "America's Sherlock Holmes" and the "greatest detective that ever lived " (according to one jaundiced New York Times press account), Burns enjoyed some well-publicized successes investigating public land frauds on the West Coast, the October 1910 bombing outrage that leveled the Los Angeles Times Building, and the arrest of the powerful San Francisco political boss Abraham Reuf on graft charges.
The William J. Burns International Detective Agency, founded in 1909, copied Pinkerton's organizational methods, and tactics, down to the placement of his headquarters offices in New York and Chicago. In the very first year, Burns signed an exclusive contract to provide security services to the American Bankers Association, one of the Pinkerton agency's most important and valued clients.
During these years, competition between rival agencies was fierce. New government regulations tightened controls on the licensing of the private police, and increased sophistication within the big city departments (the acceptance of the Bertillon method of criminal classification, and fingerprinting technique, for example) was slowly eroding the enforcement side of the business.
And unlike Allan Pinkerton's two combative sons, William J. Burns was a skillful self-promoter who parlayed his warm political ties to the Harding White House at the onset of Prohibition into national prominence.
During the time of America's wartime neutrality, prior to April 1917,Burns investigated British and German nationals alike, funneling sensitive information and covert intelligence to whichever foreign government was most likely to pay his agency the exorbitant fees he demanded. From time to time, he would even assign salaried Bureau agents to investigate matters on behalf of his private sector company clients.
His questionable wartime activities resulted in a conviction on misdemeanor charges. Burns subsequent work on behalf of the corrupt Harding administration (whose functionaries awarded him with the directorship of the Bureau of Investigation in 1921), largely overshadowed the reputation for thoroughness and integrity his agency enjoyed prior to 1917.
Burns wheedled his political appointment from Attorney General Harry M. Daughterty, President Harding's personal mentor and a member of the "Ohio Gang;" a corrupt cabal of politicians who looted and plundered the public till endlessly until Harding suffered a stroke and passed away in August 1923.
At Daugherty's urging, Burns compiled an exhaustive "enemies list" of political opponents. He began keeping an index file, listing the names of ordinary American citizens; a list that would grow exponentially in the coming decades.
Then, in an egregious breach of national security, Burns hired the infamous con-man, Gaston Bullock Means, who was in the habit of pilfering classified documents from the Bureau then reselling them for enormous profit to members of the criminal underworld.
Forced to defend his decision to hire Means, Burns sheepishly explained that he valued the slippery conman for his bevy of underworld contacts and the informants he was able to cultivate.
Later in his career, Gaston Means was accused of embezzling funds from Washington socialite and newspaper maven Evelyn Walsh McLean with a spurious promise to use this "reward money" to help return the kidnapped baby Lindbergh to his parents, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The ubiquitous Means had no idea where the missing baby might be found when he made these guarantees, and would soon end up serving a lengthy jail term for his various swindles.
Forced to resign in disgrace along with Harry Daugherty and other members of the "Ohio Gang," Burns returned to his agency business after leaving the Bureau in the hands of a 29-year-old imperturbable Justice Department up-and-comer named J. Edgar Hoover, who had been tapped for this weighty assignment by the new Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone.
As a condition of employment, Stone agreed to grant Hoover the power to "divorce politics from law enforcement." Hoover interpreted his mandate in the broadest and most extraordinary of all possible terms and set out to build an autonomous intelligence-gathering agency impervious to the will of presidents, the Congress, and the American public.
Meanwhile, William J. Burns, an enigmatic, but withered public figure, retired to Florida where he penned true detective stories for publication while continuing to direct the affairs of his agency for the balance of his remaining years. After his death, the company drifted into a period of limbo.
Industry Outlook: Private Investigations From the Post War to the Millennium
The rise of the federal law enforcement bureaucracy after World War I profoundly diminished the scope and responsibilities of the famous national detective agencies, hastening their disappearance from the American scene. Burns, Pinkerton, and lesser competitors were forced to reassess their core business and adjust to rapidly changing conditions.
By the 1960s, many of the pioneering private investigations companies abandoned this side of the business altogether, reinventing themselves as providers of security products and services to corporate America in response to a rising need for guards and increasing demands by municipalities for the privatization of policing. It is estimated that private security employees in the United States outnumber sworn police officers by a margin of 3-1 and Uncle Sam is one of the largest employers.
In a dramatic move that caught many industry observers off-guard, the federal government in 1997, closed down its Office of Personnel Management, transforming it into a private sector organization known as U.S. Investigations Services, Inc. The OPM was responsible for conducting background checks on federal employees
Today, the private security industry is a sophisticated highly evolved $50 billion dollar business encompassing access and traffic control, guard services, theft prevention, global-risk assessments of terrorist threats, executive protection, crisis management, on-site consulting (virtually non-existent before 1970), and the installation of high-tech systems. The investigative side, by comparison, is a $5 billion dollar business.
The history of the Wackenhut Corporation mirrors the subtle shifts occurring within the industry during the post-war period.
Founded in Miami in 1954 by George R. Wackenhut and three former FBI Special Agents, the family-owned company quickly expanded into the security realm by offering services to commercial and industrial clients and governmental installations spread across the world. One subsidiary manages 40 correctional facilities with 30,000 beds, providing food, laundry, and janitorial services to prisons. Another wholly owned subsidiary produces computer security systems to complement the Wackenhut guard services.
By 1981, the Burns International Detective Agency had fallen on hard times with operating costs far exceeding billable hours, thus forcing the venerable old firm to close many of its 35 free-standing offices in the U.S. Financial difficulties paved the way for its acquisition by the Borg-Warner Security Corporation. Through a slow process of attrition, the company is now known as the Burns International Services Corporation, providing security guards, armored transport services, and investigative services to its 14,000 clients.
In its promotional literature the company states that it still adheres to its nearly forgotten founder's credo, "to serve the client well."
The investigations field like many other businesses within the private sector have over the years, undergone profound change. Today, there is no clear-cut industry leader whose corporate name is immediately recognizable to the public at large, though Wackenhut and Kroll-O'Gara, through targeted aggressive expansion, would lay claim to the title.
Mergers, consolidation, and retrenchment characterize the industry at a time when more and more entrepreneurs, retired police officers, and security experts often armed with little more than a post office box, a cell phone, a pager and a video surveillance camera are granted investigator's licenses and the right to call themselves private eyes by state regulatory agencies.
Few if any of will ever match the exploits of the mythic detective popularized in books, television, and film.
Gum Shoes and "Hard Boiled" Private Eyes: The P.I. in Fact and Fiction
By the turn-of-the-last century, the reckless and daring exploits of the men who pursued the Molly McGuires and Jesse James stirred the imagination of the American reading public. The real-life detectives fueled a cottage industry that traded upon a growing fascination with the sensationalized aspects of true crime and the men who brought these malefactors to justice.
The famous "dime novels" and "penny dreadfuls"(as they were commonly known in England), enjoyed immense popularity between the Civil War and World War I. Increased mechanization of printing made it possible to cheaply produce printed matter for the masses, and distribute these publications to newsstands, cigar stores, barbershops, and dry goods emporiums nationwide.
Aimed at working class youth, the dime novels introduced a larger than life array of western heroes, outlaws, and fictional detectives like the heroic Nick Carter to the popular reading genre. Said to have been created by John Russell Coryell, the amateur sleuth was America's answer to the polished and refined Sherlock Holmes, an earlier creation of novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and introduced to the British public in pages of Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887.
Beginning in 1891, the popular adventures of the refined and intractable British detective, based on Doyle's recollections of Dr. Joseph Bell of the Edinburgh Infirmary, began attracting worldwide attention after his debut in the Strand Magazine.
Nick Carter, a defender of the law and upholder of virtue in nearly 1,000 stories hatched in the fertile imagination of Coryell and various other authors, was introduced in 1895. Nick Carter was the subject of an early silent film in 1908. Thomas Carrigan, Walter Pidgeon, Eddie Constantine, and Robert Conrad have all portrayed the great New York detective at one time or another.
The success of Beadle's New York Dime Library, and other competing companies churning out formula plots laden with intrigue and morality messages, slowly waned. By the 1920s, the Police Gazette and slick mass-marketed magazines like the Black Mask (published by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as a means of generating revenue for their more "literary" endeavors) ushered in the modern era of pulp fiction, forever changing societal notions concerning the work of the private detective.
Four years after the Black Mask first appeared on newsstands in 1920, publisher Bernarr Macfadden brought out True Detective, arguably the most successful crime and detection magazine of its kind. Featuring "clever, brainy, and brave men," invented by hack writers and famous newspaper reporters like Edward Radin, Alan Hynd, and John Barlow Martin, the stories were both shocking and sensational, and at times, sexually lurid.
True Detective spawned dozens of second and third-rate imitators like Confidential Detective, Daring Detective, Shocking Detective, and True Police Cases, but none of them measured up to the higher literary standards of the Black Mask, featuring the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, S.S. Van Dine, and Dashiell Hammett, or the gritty black and white realism of Macfadden's publication.
The pulp magazines tended to glamorize the work of the P.I. Unlike the cautionary tales imparted to impressionable youth about the wages of sin in the earlier dime novel detective stories, the twentieth century P.I. exhibited a coldly-detached cynicism as he battled fictional criminals based in part on real life murders, forgeries, con-games, embezzlements, and strong-arm robberies reported in the daily newspapers.
The new detectives were often at wits end trying to make a go of it in a shabby back-street office; their gin flasks concealed in the top drawer of a roll-down desk parked along side a holstered .44. More often than not, a betraying femme fatale with underworld connections and a mysterious past shook the P.I.'s confidence.
By the 1930s, the private eye had become society's consummate loner, a battered world-weary cynic plying his trade in a smoke and shadows world of duplicitous dames, resentful cops, and double-crossing scoundrels of the worst stripe.
The boozy, skirt-chasing fictional P.I.s were often mirror reflections of their creators. Chandler, his early years awash in disillusionment and literary failure, was an alcoholic long before he invented the brooding P.I., Philip Marlowe. Likewise, Dashiell Hammett was employed by a Baltimore brokerage firm in a dead-end job before joining the Pinkertons as an agent specializing in surveillance work. Hammett's real-life experiences formed the premise of dozens of short stories and novels, but his heavy drinking bouts and a disruptive personal life diminished his productivity and output in later years.
The literary noir technique, elevated to an art form by Chandler ("The Big Sleep"), Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon"), Mickey Spillane ("I The Jury") and James M. Cain ("The Postman Always Rings Twice"), is known by a catch-all phrase, "hard-boiled" detective fiction, for the edgy demeanor of its central protagonists. The genre has never faded from popular view, and the recent contributions of Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker and Eugene "Guy" Izzi, supply fresh leads and darkly humorous insights to the character of the fictional private eye.
As entertaining and compelling as detective fiction has remained over the years, it bears no striking resemblance to the day to day casework of the modern investigator caught up in the information age world of data base retrieval and high-end technology. Innovation has rendered much of what the old-fashioned P.I. used to do, as obsolete.
Fifty years ago, matrimonial investigation was a core business for the smaller P.I. firms. The surveillance of cheating husbands and wives and the results obtained was a high-stakes, make or break issue in pending divorce litigation. Proving adultery in court often resulted in the forfeiture of up to 80% of the philanderer's assets.
The era of the cynical P.I. spying on errant spouses in sleazy motel rooms has passed. It is a modern casualty of no-fault divorce, changing societal perceptions, and increased professionalism within the industry. The new arena of domestic investigation and undercover work involves asset searches prior to, or following a divorce action, and child custody and parental abduction cases.
The modern investigator is much more likely to be involved in assisting companies with their due diligence requirements; qualifying business partners through background checks; asset location; pre-employment background screening; investigating bogus workmen's compensation claims, investment frauds, financial crimes, trademark infringement, product diversion, security surveys, and high-tech surveillance to verify personal injury claims.
The single most important emerging industry trend nowadays is Competitive Intelligence (CI), the gathering and analysis of highly specific information to assist modern corporations as they look to expand their business across domestic and international borders.
After World War II, a time when the American intelligence gathering community was forced to downsize, many out-of-work agents gravitated into the private sector where large, multi-national corporations found their skills to be of particular use. This incongruous, odd assortment of tricksters, former O.S.S. operatives, black operations specialists and code breakers now employed in the private sector helped level the playing field for American business who lagged far behind their Japanese counterparts in the field of Competitive Intelligence.
There is a growing recognition among CEOs and CFOs for the necessity of dedicated Competitive Intelligence units within their corporate culture. Many savvy Fortune 500 companies already have these units in place; assessing a competitor's sales, and marketing and financial data. By the second decade of the Millennium, they will be as common as loss prevention/security units are today.
The demand for detailed information from CI specialists requires that the specialists bring to the table broad analytical skills, problem solving, and an awareness of evolving business conditions. Valuable insights are often gained from the Internet, on-line information providers like LEXIS-NEXIS, CDB-Infotek, Dialog, Dow Jones, Dun & Bradstreet, skilled interviewing technique, and an ability to strike at hidden truths through a vortex of numbing facts and figures. Gaining sight, insight, and solutions by penetrating this myriad of seemingly disparate information is a highly evolved process, but one that I believe can be mastered by anyone possessing a curious mind, and the talent and desire to achieve results.
Put another way: "Gum shoe detectives of fiction are just plain rot!" thundered William Pinkerton way back in 1922. "Detective work is only using good common sense and nothing else!"
The above article was written in 1999 during the time Rich was employed by Search International, a private investigations firm in Schaumburg.